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Special Restaurant Issue / A New Sparkle: The Way We
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The cafeteria: an L.A. original

It began as a grand idea that defined dining out in the city, then caught on countrywide.

November 05, 2003|Charles Perry | Times Staff Writer

We specialize in world-conquering restaurant trends in our town, but the first of them wasn't the barbecued chicken pizzeria, the theme restaurant or even the drive-in. It was the cafeteria.

Yes, the cafeteria. And the old-time L.A. cafeterias were far better than you might imagine. With live music, appealing food and decor that could make Dodd Mitchell's hyper-designed restaurants look modest, they were so important in the '20s that one writer dubbed L.A. "Sunny Cafeteria."

As late as the 1950s, many people still considered a cafeteria quite grand. My grandfather always put on a jacket and tie before going out, with grave dignity, to shove a tray along the rails.

For an L.A. full of uprooted newcomers in the 1920s, they were the quintessential modern, California way to dine, and at one time there were scores of them here. Only three remain.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday November 07, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Historic cafeteria -- In Wednesday's Food section, a timeline accompanying an article about cafeterias gave an incorrect address for the original Boos Bros. cafeteria, which opened in 1906. It was at 211 W. 2nd St., Los Angeles, not 211 W. Spring St.

The cafeteria craze started in May 1905, when a woman named Helen Mosher opened a humble downtown L.A. restaurant where people chose their food at a long counter and carried their own trays to their tables. Using the slogans "Food That Can Be Seen" and "No Tips," she called it the Cafeteria.

The idea of a self-service restaurant was in the air; restaurateurs had been moving toward it for more than a decade. There had been experiments in Eastern cities with smorgasbord service, where you filled one plate at a counter, paid and took it to your table. In 1898, the Childs restaurants in New York took the crucial step of letting you slide a tray along on rails so you could load it up with several plates at a time.

The word "cafeteria" wasn't first used in Los Angeles (in 1893 a man named John Kruger had opened a place in Chicago modeled on European smorgasbords and called it the Cafeteria), but it was tailor-made for L.A. In 1905, all things Latino seemed long ago and far away around here. They conjured up dreams of California's romantic past: the Mission Days, the fabled Days of the Dons! Hard though it may be to imagine now, Mosher might have chosen the name "cafeteria" because it sounded ... colorful. In any case, the cafeteria phenomenon that swept the country in the '20s was acknowledged to come from California, not New York or Chicago.

The key figures were four brothers named Boos, newcomers to town who hailed from Moscow, Ohio. They saw the appeal of the concept and had the experience to improve on Mosher's version, since they'd worked in restaurants in New York and St. Louis. They opened their own bigger, brighter, more professional cafeteria three blocks from hers in 1906, and within 10 years they were running four cafeterias downtown. By 1926 they had six in L.A. (all on Broadway or around Pershing Square), two in San Francisco and one on Catalina.

Dining at a cafeteria was a snap. You didn't have to catch some waiter's attention and then wait for your order -- you just grabbed a tray and loaded it up. Typically you started at a station of cold dishes, mostly salads. Then on to the hot stations, where attendants would hand you a chicken pot pie, carve some roast beef or serve you some of the scalloped green beans. As you approached the cash register, you'd pass an army of cakes, pies and puddings, with freshly baked bread, rolls and drinks nearby.

This was a brisk, breezy, modern way of dining that appealed to the go-ahead spirit of the '20s. And it was cheap. You chose your own side dishes, as many or as few as you wanted, and, of course, you didn't have to tip anybody. As the Boos brothers wrote in a 1926 history of their organization, "Many would like to get away from the growing tipping evil -- if such it may be called. The price of a tip could at least buy a piece of pie, or an order of shortcake."

The food stations were typically covered with gleaming tile, and the whole feeling of a cafeteria was clean and wholesome. Best of all, the dishes were right in front of you; you didn't have to guess what the menu description really meant. Before opening their first cafeteria, the Boos brothers wrote, they had noticed "an increasing tendency, particularly on the part of women, to 'shop' around, to see the things they wished to buy before paying for them." Cafeteria food was designed to look appealing, because it sold on its looks.

At the time, L.A. was dominated by recent immigrants from the Midwest, largely retirees. Right from the beginning, when Mosher used the slogan "All Women Cooks" to indicate that she offered home-style food, cafeterias catered to the Iowans and Michiganders by serving Midwestern food. It wasn't French cuisine, but it was honest home cooking: juicy roasts, braised short ribs, hearty soups, fresh vegetables and all those cakes and pies.

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